Met Breuer

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 62 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
Studio Job Chartres Cabinet, Met Breuer
Studio Job, “Chartres,” 2009-2012, Bronze, 24K gold leaf

This is the best, or at least weirdest, cabinet I have ever seen. Probably the most Gothic.  And the least practical. An entire cathedral, tipped on its side!  No putting that against the wall, that’s for sure.

Studio Job, Chartres Cabinet, Met Breuer

UPDATE APRIL 2021: The Met has pulled the plug on its Breuer experiment, reducing its New York City empire to the classic mothership and The Cloisters. I liked what it was doing in the Breuer building, but the silver lining is the Frick is now playing in that space.

Met Breuer
Art Fortress

The first thing you should know about my take on the Met Breuer, housed in the former home of the Whitney Museum of American Art, is I really really really dislike the building.  The iconic, Brutalist, Marcel Breuer art fortress says to me very loudly and in no uncertain terms, “Don’t come in here. You are not welcome.” It looms over the sidewalk.  It has one big wonky window like Polyphemus’s eye.  That’s it.  It’s a Cyclopean building.  A monster.  Hide under a sheepskin on your way out or it’ll devour you.

You have to cross a narrow bridge over a crevasse to get in, upping the feeling of peril. Then once you’re in the lobby, the harsh concrete and spotlight-y lights feel like some kind of an art world police state, with you as the object of interrogation.  “Admit it!  Talk!  You like MONET.  Confess and maybe we’ll go easy on ya.”

Met Breuer Lobby

One of the reasons I love the Whitney so much today is simply that it’s no longer in this building.

So, I have a bias.

The second thing you should know is, according to the Met, the architect’s name is pronounced BROY-er, not brewer.  Just in case you wondered.

With the Whitney’s move to the Meatpacking District, naturally questions arose as to what to do with the Madison Avenue fortress.  Fortunately (maybe?) the Met stepped in and leased it, making it the Met’s second satellite location after The Cloisters.  Otherwise they probably would’ve turned it into an H&M or a fancy food hall or something.

Thus far, the Met has used the Breuer building to…well, to let its institutional hair down a bit, it seems.  None of the permanent collection has moved.  Rather, it  leverages the space for special exhibitions. They tend to the modern or contemporary, which is good given the space. And yet, the Met’s also done some fairly fascinating surveys, leveraging the strength of its encyclopedic collection but doing things they might not want to do, or even be able to do, in any of the spaces in the mother ship on Fifth Avenue.

When I visited, one show consisted of four video installations, which were okay.  Certainly video works well in the cavelike Breuer space.

Ettore Sottsass, Design Maverick

The other show, on the designer Ettore Sottsass, exemplifies what I mean about letting the Met go a little bonkers installation-wise.

Sottsass first found fame designing an iconic Olivetti portable manual typewriter, in super-sexy lipstick red, with a case that could double as a waste-paper basket.  It’s adorable and brilliant, and the Met shows it off alongside other modern designs meant to be cheap and cheerful, like a One Laptop Per Child laptop.

But on top of that, they introduce it with a…colorful quote from Sottsass.  I have been visiting the Met for over 20 years, and I really don’t think I’ve ever seen that word in a wall text there before, much less in big type as a key quote.

Olivetti Typewriter, Ettore Sottsass Exhibit, Met Breuer, New York
Sottsass, a man of strong opinions

Ettore Sottsass, Met Breuer

Sottsass had a long career designing things of all types, including the outdoor furniture that uses classical capitals and columns in the photo above.  This also provides a typical view of Met Breuer gallery space, with its slate floors and the waffle iron ceiling.

Ettore Sottsass also went on to found the short-lived, exuberant, 1980s “Memphis” design movement, exemplified by his wacky, colorful room divider here. 

Ettore Sottsass, Met Breuer, New York

Creativity Unleashed

Cleverly, the Met juxtaposed some chunky Memphis jewelry with 4,000 year old Egyptian pieces (that looked really good by comparison).  They did things like that throughout.  Sottsass designed some glass art pieces he called “Kachinas,” and the Met displayed them next to Hopi dolls from its collection.  They displayed some of Sotsass’s nifty, colorful, tall, ceramic towers with a Frank Lloyd Wright architectural model, some Shiva Lingam, and a Chinese jade Neolithic ritual object.  Throughout the show, these sorts of unexpected pairings helped illuminate Sottsass’s work, providing a look at objects that might have inspired him, or at least creating a novel context for his pieces.  I really enjoyed it.

Creative combinations of works in a dialogue across thousands of years and diverse cultures is something places like the Brooklyn Museum have been trying for some time, not always successfully.  The Met seems to be using the Breuer to experiment with that approach to curating a show.  And I think they’re doing it really well so far.

My Bottom Line on the Met Breuer

So what’s my bottom line on the Met Breuer?  I’m not going to say everyone should drop everything and go.  The building might be interesting, but I still don’t think it’s a welcoming or pleasant place to see art.  But I can’t deny the creativity that’s going into the Met’s programming at the Met Breuer.  The staff has done some tremendous shows there so far, full of…spirit.  If having the Breuer lets them think about their collection in novel ways, and tell new stories about art, I value that highly.  Hopefully some of the Met Breuer spirit will eventually find outlets in the Fifth Avenue HQ, too.

Met Breuer Exterior

For Reference:

Address 945 Madison Avenue,  (at East 75th Street) Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $25 (Suggested)


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